Four Stars the NBA Wouldn’t Touch, 1969

[Last weekend, the blog ran a profile of ABA star Roger Brown. This article, from SPORT Magazine’s 1969 Basketball Almanac, goes into greater detail on the NBA’s overzealous banishment of not only Brown, but of super talents Tony Jackson, Connie Hawkins, and Doug Moe. All found redemption in the ABA. Journalist John Devaney tells the story.]

Doug Moe. Tony Jackson. Connie Hawkins. Roger Brown. You know the names. You’ll find them in this season’s box scores of American Basketball Association games. Doug Moe is with Oakland, Tony Jackson with New York, Connie Hawkins with Minnesota, Roger Brown with Indiana. They were among the league’s top half-dozen in all-round basketball skills last year, the ABA’s first season.

Look back at 1961 newspapers and you find their names again. A ring of gamblers, ex-ballplayer Jack Molinas among them, bribed college players to fix games. On the trail of the gamblers, the Manhattan District Attorney questions dozen of college players. Among them: St. John’s All-America Tony Jackson.

Had Tony ever been asked to throw a game?

Once, he said, but he assumed the phone call was a prank. 

Did he report the call to St. John’s?

No, he thought it was a joke. 

The District Attorney questioned North Carolina’s star, Doug Moe. Had he ever been asked to throw a game?

Yes, once he said. But the guy was a buddy, someone Moe played ball with at Carolina for years. Doug Moe didn’t want to turn in a buddy. He had simply said no. 

The District Attorney talked to two young Brooklyn ballplayers, only recently out of high school. One was Connie Hawkins, a gangling freshman at the University of Iowa. The other was Roger Brown, holder of the New York City high school scoring record, now a freshman at the University of Dayton. Had they received money from Jack Molinas?

No, they said, but Molinas had bought them dinners and movie tickets and had done small favors. 

The District Attorney named all four ball players in his case against the fixers. The District Attorney filed no charges against the four, still hasn’t. But the National Basketball Association shut its door to each of them. “Anyone who was named in the investigation cannot play,” an NBA official told Tony Jackson. 

Now, seven years later, all four are all-stars in the new American Basketball Association. To find out what life in the shadow of scandal had been like for them before they got a shot at a new basketball life, and what life was like for them in the ABA, I sought out each player at midseason last year. 

Tony Jackson

The first was Tony Jackson of the New Jersey Americans (now the New York Nets). Tony has a long I-beam face. With the horn-rimmed glasses he wears off court and his constant, abstracted frown, he has a scholarly look.

After being told he couldn’t play in the NBA, Jackson signed with the Chicago team in the short-lived American Basketball League. “That league folded after a year and a half, and I came back to Brooklyn,” Tony was saying. “An NBA referee I knew, he helped me get a job with the New York City Board of Education.”

Tony’s job was supervising kids in school gyms after classes, keeping them away from the pot and the gang fights of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant streets. “Last year, I earned $6,500 and my salary is going up,” he told me. “This spring, when the ABA season ends, I’ll go back.”

I asked how he had kept himself in shape. “I’ve been playing basketball two, three times a week all year,” he said. “Each Thursday night, at the school where I worked, some college ballplayers would come by.

“In the winters, I played in weekend tournaments up in Connecticut. I was getting $75 a game. And in the summers, I played in the Rucker tournament. That’s played in a park up at 155th Street and 8th Avenue in July and August.”

Playing in this Harlem tournament, Tony told me, are people like Wilt Chamberlain, Willis Reed, Chet Walker, Freddie Crawford, Ray Scott and any other NBA or college player who might be in town. “That tournament was a good thing for me. It reminded people what I could do,” said Tony, who averaged 30 points a game.  

“How did you feel playing against NBA players?”

He thought a few moments. “Look,” he said, “my confidence wasn’t any less because I wasn’t playing in the NBA. It wasn’t that I had failed to make the NBA. I wasn’t playing because I never got the chance to play.”

The Americans’ coach Max Zaslofsky, an old NBA set shooter, who told me: “If Tony had gone into the NBA six years ago, he’d be a superstar today. He is such a great, great outside shooter. The crime of it is: he did nothing except fail to report a phone call. The real crime of it is: Six years are wasted. Now he’s 28, he’s at his peak. He’s looking down the hill from here on. It would be only human to be bitter. I know I’d be bitter. But it isn’t in Tony to be bitter.”

That night, Tony scored 34 points against Oakland. Afterward, he slipped on a faded sports jacket and a tired-looking porkpie hat and walked out of the clubhouse. Outside a boy was screeching, “I want Tony Jackson’s autograph,” Tony walked by the boy, who did not recognize him. 

Driving back to New York, Tony talked about a house he had bought in the East New York section of Brooklyn. It is a two-story brick house and he rents out one floor, living on the other with his wife, Pat, and their three children. “It’s a good investment,” he said. 

“Is it near where you grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant?”

“Oh, no,” he said, and there was satisfaction in his usually colorless voice. “We’ve come a long way from there.” Tony’s $15,000 ABA salary [worth $115,000 today] had indeed made things easier, but except for improving his residence, he insists he hasn’t changed much at all. “I wear the same clothes, do the same things I was doing when I wasn’t in the ABA,” he said. “I didn’t go out and buy a lot of new things when I signed a pro contract. We spend just about the same amount of money each week that we did when I worked for only the Board of Education. (But his wife does detect a difference in Tony. “He just seems more pleased with life now,” she says.)

Did he ever think about all those years wasted—years in which he might have made a lot more money in the NBA? “I always knew I could play in the NBA,” he said. “But I wasn’t wanted. And where I’m not wanted, I won’t go.”

He stopped the car at a red light and looked over at me, smiling as if to say: “That’s all there is to it, my friend; no bitterness, nothing. 

Roger Brown

A few days later, I flew to Indianapolis to see Roger Brown. He met me at the airport. He is 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, with a long and somber face, but a wary, distrustful look and a curling mustache make him look older than his 25 years. 

As we drove into Indianapolis in his 1966 Oldsmobile, he talked about being dismissed from the University of Dayton. At the time, he was a bewildered 19-year-old freshman and he went back to Brooklyn. “I was really down,” he said. “After I was home a while, I figured I’d get into more trouble on the streets. I went back to Dayton and tried to get back into school. When I couldn’t, I went out and got a job.”

He went to work in the factory of Inland Manufacturing, a subsidiary of General Motors. “I started out in what they call the press line,” he said. “You work on motor mounts in temperatures like 105 degrees.” The pay was $105 [today $900] a week.

He played AAU basketball for Inland in 1961-62, and starred in the AAU championships. When Inland disbanded its team, he switched to the Jones Brothers Morticians, a Dayton AAU team that was lively enough, despite its name, to beat the Phillips 66ers, then AAU champions.

The Morticians played on Sunday evenings. “We had no trainer to tape us properly. I was always spraining an ankle. I had to be at work at 11:00 o’clock on Sunday nights and many times I called in sick because I had hurt an ankle. Finally, Inland told me: Choose basketball or the job; you can’t do both.”

Roger did do both, often limping to work on throbbing ankles, driven now by a determination to play in the 1964 Olympics. In 1964, the Morticians won the Dayton-area AAU tournament and packed their bags to fly to Denver for the national championships and Olympic trials. There, Roger heard AAU officials didn’t want him on the Olympic team. In Denver, the Morticians were told: “Your application came in too late.” Another Dayton team beaten by the Morticians, replaced them.  

Roger and his teammates tried in vain to get a judge to issue an injunction against the appearance of the other team. In 1965, though, a wary Roger did get a court order forbidding anyone from keeping him out of an AAU tournament. 

“By then, people in Dayton were coming around to my side,” Roger told me as we ate lunch at an Indianapolis hotel. “People said, ‘Look, this guy has been deprived of his education and a chance to play pro ball. Isn’t that punishment enough?’”

“Did you take money from Jack Molinas?” I asked. 

“Are you going to pay for this lunch?” he asked. 

“Well,” I said, “SPORT Magazine is.”

He waved a hand. “Well, that was the way it was done. Molinas bought a lot of things for us—not just for Connie  and me but for all the ballplayers. We’d play a schoolyard game down at the beach, he’d buy dinner. The DA added it all up, it came to $250 or so [about $2,200 today], and the DA said we accepted that sum for, as he put it, ‘our good offices.’”

Roger laughed. “Hell, what could we do for the fixers? We were still in high school.”

He talked about how determined he had been to play in the 1964 Olympics. “Every Wednesday night during the summers,” he said, “I made it a point to drive to Cincinnati. I’d work out with Oscar Robertson and some of the other Royals. It’d be 9:30 when we finished. It was a 52-mile drive back to Dayton. I’d be back by 10:15, driving 70, 80, 90 miles an hour. I’d wash up, be on the job by 11. The drive was the easy part. What was tough was keeping awake all night in the factory.”

After playing against Oscar, Roger began to believe he could play NBA ball even without college experience. He asked the Royals to sign him. The Royals refused. 

Cynical and distrustful, Roger didn’t jump to sign when the Indiana Pacers, a new ABA club, offered him a contract last summer. “My wife and I talked about it,” Roger was saying as we sat in the comfortable home he rents on the outskirts of Indianapolis,  AAU trophies stacked on shelves. “I had to give up a good job at General Motors. How did I know if the league wouldn’t fold? I could go back to GM if the league folded, but I’d be giving up six years’ seniority.”

After some tough negotiating, Roger signed for around $20,000. “I can’t fault them for trying to get me for as little as possible,” said Roger. “As they told me, ‘You never played college ball, you never played pro ball. We don’t know what you can do.’”

Now, midway through the ABA season, Roger was leading the Pacers in scoring with a 21-point average. “What hurts me,” he said, “was people not knowing what I could do. But now they know. I plan to ask for 100 percent raise. If necessary, I’ll play out my option to get it.”

He’s stared out the picture window at wooded fields. “After all,” he said slowly, “I’ve already lost a lot of years.”

Connie Hawkins

On this night in Indianapolis, Roger trotted onto the floor to play against a good friend and old foe, Connie Hawkins, of the Pittsburgh (now the Minnesota) team. Once, as high school stars, he had played before more than 18,000 people in Madison Square Garden. “Connie,” Roger told me, “can’t do everything. He is the best all-around basketball player in the league.”

Connie Hawkins. When the University of Iowa let him go after the Molinas affair, Connie went home to Brooklyn and stared for days at the walls of his mother’s flat. “There is nothing Connie knows except basketball,” a friend said at the time. When that collapsed, he signed on with the Harlem Globetrotters—and received an education in basketball and other things. 

“I played four years with the Globetrotters,” he told me. “You couldn’t pay enough to get all that experience. You played every day. You learned ball control. You went to Europe four times. I learned a little bit of the language of every country where I played. I can speak French, Czech, German, Italian, Spanish. I have a good ear for language.”

On the advice of his lawyer, Connie quit the Globetrotters two years ago. “We had two or three things in mind,” Connie told me, “but nothing came of them.”

Connie was living in Pittsburgh with his wife and two children. On weekends, he flew to New York to play “fooling-around” basketball with the Harlem Wizards. 

He signed with Pittsburgh last fall. “They had no trouble signing me,” said Connie, laughing. “Actually, I was surprised they wanted me. I didn’t think anyone in the new league would know who I was or what I could do.”

Doug Moe

The next afternoon, Doug Moe arrived in Pittsburgh with the New Orleans Buccaneers. Six-foot-seven, 230 pounds, Moe looks as massive as a boulder. Like Hawkins, Jackson and Brown, he comes from Brooklyn, but his Brooklyn is a white, middle-class section.

“Before all that (scandal) stuff came out in the newspapers,” he said, “I’d talked to the Chicago team in the NBA about signing. But after the District Attorney mentioned my name, they just didn’t get in touch with me anymore.”

Dismissed from North Carolina, Moe at first sold insurance in Durham. “Selling was hard for me,” he said, “I was discovering what it’s like in this world to be without a college degree and have a job you hate.”

Helped by Dean Smith, North Carolina’s basketball coach, he got a job as an assistant basketball coach at Elon, a small North Carolina school where he also attended classes. After two years, he earned a degree. Then he accepted an offer to play basketball in Italy. “All my expenses were paid,” said Doug. “We had a house, a car, anything I needed was paid for. You couldn’t believe what a great life we had.”

Somewhat reluctantly, he left Italy last summer to play for New Orleans. “Actually, I came back because of Larry Brown,” Moe said. “We’d been good friends at North Carolina. He phoned me in Italy and told me he’d signed with New Orleans and would I be interested? If the Italians offered me $25,000, I probably would have stayed.”

“Didn’t you ever wish you could play NBA ball?”

“I wish I could play for everybody,” he said laughing. 

“Actually, when I was at Elon, I got a phone call from the Baltimore Bullets, who owned the NBA rights to me. I never returned their call. I knew if I started to think basketball, I’d go out of my mind until I played again.

“I think, all in all, I was lucky. Suppose I had gone from Carolina to the NBA? I’d be 29 years old now, and all I’d know is how to play pro ball. I wouldn’t have a degree. I wouldn’t have had those two wonderful years in Italy. And now, to top it all, I’m playing pro ball, something I never thought would happen. The whole thing was a blessing in disguise.” 

Because Tony Jackson thought a phone call was a joke, because Connie Hawkins and Roger Brown let someone buy them a few good times, because Doug Moe unwisely was too loyal, they lost three to six years. 

You don’t balance off such losses easily. Whether they themselves think so or not, it is difficult to believe that Doug Moe’s degree, Connie Hawkins’ fluency in language, the fame Roger Brown built as an AAU player in Dayton (he hopes to start a business there), or Tony Jackson’s work with slum kids is full compensation for what they lost. 

But there was a kid named Charlie Scott playing high school basketball in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant section. One day he very likely will be among the top college players and, perhaps, among the pros. A Board of Education supervisor, Tony Jackson, spent a lot of hours these past few years coaching Charlie Scott, helping to shape him into the fine ballplayer he has become. And when you think about that, you feel a little better about so much talent that was wasted. 

One thought on “Four Stars the NBA Wouldn’t Touch, 1969

  1. Love reading these stories. I never saw these guys play accept Connie Hawkins. But I saw their names in SI and other sports magazines. Love late sixties early seventies basketball.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: